John Sweeney is famous for confronting despots, championing lost causes and traveling through the streets of Harare, Zimbabwe, in the trunk of a car. But faced with Tommy Davis of the Church of Scientology in Los Angeles, he totally lost his cool.
Today video footage of Sweeney screaming at Davis is on YouTube, taped and posted by the church.
"He can dish out, but he certainly can't take it," Mike Rinder, a spokesman for the Church of Scientology, told ABC News. "The tables got turned on him, and he was the one who ultimately melted down."
Sweeney was "video ambushed" while on assignment for the BBC in Los Angeles to investigate the Church of Scientology and the accusations from some quarters that it is, or was, a sinister cult.
The clip of Sweeney's "meltdown" appeared on the Internet just hours before his documentary "Scientology and Me" was scheduled to air.
"I look like an exploding tomato and shout like a jet engine," Sweeney wrote today on the BBC's Web site. "If you are interested in becoming a TV journalist, it is a fine example of how not to do it."
This is how it happened: Sweeney was wrapping up a seven-day shoot in Los Angeles when Davis approached him to complain angrily that Sweeney had been too easy on an interviewee.
Just inches from Davis' face, Sweeney began to shout with the ferocity of a hair dryer on high. "You were not there at the beginning of that interview," bellowed Sweeney. "You did not hear or record all the interview." Halfway through his rant, Sweeney asked, very calmly, "Do you understand, did you understand that?"
The incident has pitted two powerful institutions against each other. This goes beyond Sweeney vs. Davis. This is the Church of Scientology vs. the BBC.
John Travolta, one of the religion's most high-profile devotees, wrote to the BBC, accusing Sweeney of "personal prejudices, bigotry and animosity." The church is circulating a DVD of its own documentary about Sweeney's investigation to British politicians, and is setting up a Web site called "panorama-exposed."
The Church of Scientology accuses the BBC of staging an anti-Scientology demonstration in London. "Completely untrue," a BBC representative told ABC News.
The BBC has confronted the furor head-on. Sandy Smith, the editor of Panorama, the documentary strand behind "Scientology and Me," appeared on "BBC Breakfast" and called the Church of Scientology an "extraordinary organization" that has "no way of dealing with any kind of criticism at all."
When I put that claim to Rinder, the Scientologist spokersman, he laughed. "Do you know how much criticism I have had to take in my life?" he asked.
Sweeney has apologized, and his boss said he does not "condone" Sweeney's behavior. He said he was "very disappointed" by the reporter's conduct.
But this morning the BBC also showed a clip of Davis getting a little short with Sweeney. Davis accused the BBC man of referring to Scientology as a cult in an effort to get a reaction. "Well, buddy, you got it," he told Sweeney, "Right here, right now. I'm angry. Real angry." Although not as angry as Sweeney in the now infamous outburst.
Sweeney has given his side of the story on the BBC's Web site and also in Britain's Daily Mail newspaper. "I let my team down, and I apologized when it happened and I apologize again now," Sweeney began. He then went on to explain what drove him to lose control.
After landing in Los Angeles, Sweeney claimed, "Our team was spied on by 10 different strangers." Rinder said the BBC team was filmed, not spied upon. "We had a camera, and he knew that we were filming," he told me.
Sweeney also wrote that Davis, a spokesman for the church, "invaded" interviews and showed up at the crew's hotel late at night to berate it for interviewing people who had left the church.
Sweeney claimed it was a Scientology exhibition called "Psychiatry: Industry of Death" that pushed him over the edge. "At the end of 90 minutes, I felt bombarded and unable to bear another single second," Sweeney wrote.
Back home in Britain, Sweeney said a stranger was apprehended sifting through the mail at Sweeney's mother-in-law's apartment building, that a neighbor was asked by a stranger for Sweeney's address, and that a strange man was seen hiding in the bushes, spying on Sweeney's wedding in rural England. According to Rinder, Sweeney is "Making those stories up to defend his outrageous conduct."
"Scientologists have fought many battles to keep its secrets off the web," Sweeney lamented in his article on the BBC's Web site. "Now they are using it to attack my investigation into them."
The program was "updated" today in the hours before going to air. According to a BBC representative, what hit the screens "has certainly reflected what happened over the weekend." John Sweeney's "exploding tomato" moment is included. Apparently, it had been included all along. "Them posting the clip on YouTube: That's not what precipitated us including John's outburst," the BBC rep told ABC News.
Apparently, "reference to him losing his temper" was sent out weeks ago to newspapers and magazines preparing the TV listings.